Public Health

Courthouses in this state grapple with rise in judges and staff testing positive for COVID-19

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Several courthouses across Georgia shut down this week as judges and staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Superior Court Chief Judge Brenda Weaver of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit issued an emergency order Tuesday closing courthouses in Gilmer and Fannin counties.

She said, “despite the implementation of and adherence to designated safety guidelines necessitated in response to COVID-19, a number of courthouse employees are displaying symptoms of COVID-19 and are awaiting the results of COVID-19 tests.”

Kevin Holder, executive director of the state’s Council of Probate Court Judges, told Law.com that Gilmer County Probate Judge Scott Chastain tested positive for COVID-19.

In the emergency order, Weaver said it was “no longer feasible to allow judicial offices in the courthouses” to remain open, and that they would be deep-cleaned.

Ware County Superior Court Chief Judge Dwayne Gillis also declared a judicial emergency Tuesday after it was reported that Probate Judge Calvin Bennett and members of his family and staff tested positive for COVID-19.

“It has come to the attention of the undersigned that persons working regularly in the Ware County Courthouse may have been exposed to COVID-19 and are experiencing symptoms and some personnel have had close contact with them,” Gillis said in the order.

Gillis said the probate court would remain closed through July 19, and that “all court deadlines, time schedules or filing requirements are hereby suspended, tolled or extended for the duration of the judicial emergency.”

According to Law.com, Cobb County Probate Chief Judge Kelli Wolk, who is president of the Council of Probate Court Judges, said six probate judges have tested positive for COVID-19. Dougherty County Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson, one of those judges, died in April after contracting the virus.

Earlier in July, the justice center that houses state, magistrate and juvenile courts in Henry County outside Atlanta was closed after six court personnel tested positive for COVID-19. Law.com reports that Henry County State Court Judge Ben Studdard confirmed that he tested positive for the virus.

Studdard said the Georgia Department of Public Health made COVID-19 testing available to justice center employees, and those who test negative can return to work when the building reopens Monday.

Several court employees in other counties have also tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks.

Douglas County Superior Court Chief Judge David Emerson told Law.com that a juvenile court employee tested positive after interacting with other clerks in the county’s juvenile, state, superior, probate and magistrate courts. Those employees have all been asked to work from home.

In Cobb County, Wolk said seven employees in the county judicial complex tested positive for COVID-19, including one of her license clerks. Staff who came into contact with those employees have been encouraged, but not required, to be tested.

And in Fulton County, Superior Court Judge Christopher Brasher said six employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Those employees and anyone they encountered will quarantine for two weeks and cannot reenter the courthouse until they test negative.

While many Georgia courthouses have been working to resume normal operations, Law.com reports that Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton may extend the statewide judicial emergency. His order is currently in effect until Sunday.

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